Totally Concocted

Skye Arundhati Thomas

More than 150 Indian journalists, politicians, lawyers, student leaders and activists have been identified by the Pegasus project as possible surveillance targets. Reporters at the Wire, an independent newspaper, are keeping a live list as they work through the fifty thousand phone numbers thought to have been compromised by the Israeli NSO Group’s spyware. Using a toolkit built by the Amnesty International Security Lab, they discovered that two of their founding editors’ devices were infected with the code. The software enables users to take control of other people’s smartphones: encrypted messages are visible to them, and cameras and microphones may be remotely accessed and switched on. The NSO Group says it only sells its spyware to ‘vetted governments’. The government in Delhi claims the Pegasus project is ‘bereft of facts’. Journalists have submitted pleas to the Supreme Court to investigate the allegations. They will be heard on 5 August.

The targets identified so far include several of those accused in the Elgar Parishad case. Elgar Parishad was an event held on New Year’s Eve 2017 to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, in which 22 Dalit Mahars died fighting for the British East India Company against the Brahmin (and violently casteist) Peshwas. At the event, fights broke out between right-wing Hindus and Dalits. Over the following months, sixteen activists who had spoken at Elgar Parishad were accused of starting the violence and taken into custody or placed under house arrest. Documents allegedly found on their laptops were leaked to the press.

The documents seemed to reveal a plan to assassinate Narendra Modi; discussed buying arms and setting up guerrilla training camps; and named Dalit and Muslim student leaders as comrades with ties to the Congress party. It was sensational, with all the trappings of a classic conspiracy: a group of armed activists with links to the opposition, plotting to topple the government. The police called the evidence they had gathered ‘conclusive’; the BJP’s propaganda machine branded the accused as Naxalites. One of them, Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union activist and lawyer, passed her defence team a handwritten note. ‘It is totally concocted,’ she wrote, ‘fabricated to criminalise me and other human rights lawyers, activists, organisations.’

The sixteen have been held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, introduced in 1967 but much amended since, most recently by Modi in 2019. It allows the government to define what counts as terrorism and all but prohibits bail. Nine of the ten documents on which the case rests were found on a computer belonging to one of the sixteen, Rona Wilson, an activist and prison reform advocate. In March last year, the Caravan reported the results of a cyber-forensic examination of Wilson’s hard disk. They found malware that had been used to access it remotely, obtain sensitive information and plant documents.

In July 2020, the activists’ legal team approached Arsenal Consulting, an American digital forensics firm that had worked on the Boston Marathon bombing case in 2013. They found that Wilson’s computer had been compromised for over 22 months, with software intended not just for surveillance but for ‘document delivery’. One letter, supposedly from Wilson to a ‘comrade Prakash’, asks for a million US dollars to procure M4 carbines and 400,000 rounds of ammunition so they can take ‘concrete steps to end Modi-raj’. The last remote change to Wilson’s computer was made on 16 April 2018. The police raided his house in Pune at dawn the following day.

Another document found on Wilson’s computer appears to show minutes from a meeting at which the alleged conspirators planned to ‘intensify tactical training for women … including booby traps/directional mines’. Arsenal identified it as one of three files placed on Wilson’s computer in the space of two minutes on the morning of 11 January 2018. They were even able to ‘capture a command-line syntax mistake (and quick correction) made by the attacker’. Arsenal then investigated the hard disk of the human rights lawyer and activist Surendra Gadling, and found the same hacker had accessed Gadling’s computer for over twenty months. Arsenal called it ‘one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering’ they had seen.

Several of the sixteen have serious health problems. Stan Swamy, a Catholic priest and tribal rights activist suffering from Parkinson’s, was held in a high-security prison in Mumbai. He contracted Covid and was put on a ventilator – still, each bail plea was rejected. He died on 5 July, a day before another bail hearing was scheduled. Bharadwaj has diabetes and hypertension. Gautam Navlakha is severely short-sighted. His glasses broke and he wasn’t authorised a new pair. The eighty-year-old poet Varavara Rao was denied access to better medical care after testing positive for Covid. Professor Hany Babu was refused bail despite a severe eye infection and loss of vision. Three years into the case, they are still awaiting trial.

The government is also framing the New Delhi riots of February 2019 as the result of a violent conspiracy, allegedly led by a group of young activists and leaders, all of whom have been charged under the UAPA. Thousands of pages of evidence were submitted in sealed boxes, mostly inaccessible not only to the public but to the accused themselves. Hyperbolic claims against the activists have been made in the charge sheets and in the press (manufacturing arms, raising funds for conspiracy, murder); there is no sign of a trial date.

Three student leaders – Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Tanha – were released on bail in June, after a historic judgment by the New Delhi High Court. ‘It is not uncommon for protestors to push the limits permissible in law,’ the court found, and this does not ‘amount to the commission of a “terrorist act” or a “conspiracy” or an “act preparatory” to the commission of a terrorist act as understood under the UAPA’. As they left the gates of Tihar Jail, the three young activists were met by their comrades, friends and family. They stood together, turned to one another and broke into a protest song.